The Language of Film

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Movie lovers will tell you that film has a language all of its own. Yet within many movies are actual languages that have been designed especially for them.

Some of these invented or constructed languages have been largely ignored or lost to history. Some are only used or referenced by diehard fans.

Yet others have become full languages that can be used, with dictionaries and translators available online.

Here are some movie languages that have become far more popular than even most of their creators could ever have imagined:

Constructed languages in films

1) Klingon (Star Trek)

Klingon was first used in Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 1979. Since those eleven short phrases were first uttered, it has gone on to become one of the most widely used and popularised fictional languages ever.

Marc Okrand and James Doohan (who played Scotty) created the famed sci-fi language in the mid-seventies, emphasising the focus of the fictional race who speak it – namely, warfare.

Today, Klingon is so popular that it has its own dictionary and classic plays such as William Shakespeare’s Hamlet have been performed in the language. Even the Bible has been translated into Klingon.

The language has also been used on several occasions in other films and TV shows including The Simpsons, The Big Bang Theory, Paul (2011), and Kill Bill (2003).

2) Na’vi (Avatar)

In 2009, James Cameron released his record-breaking film Avatar. The movie featured its own language called Na’vi, spoken by the tribe of the same name who live on the planet Pandora.

Na’vi was created by Paul Frommer in 2005. The communications professor and linguistic consultant later worked on-set with the actors to help refine their pronunciation and understanding of the language.

More Avatar movies are currently in the pipeworks. So even though it already contains several thousand words, Na’vi is sure to be a film language that expands in future.

3) Minionese (Despicable Me)

Yes, they have their own language! Minionese is the fictional language spoken by the adorable Minions in the Despicable Me franchise. It can also be called the “Banana Language” as a reference to their colour.

Hinting at the popularity of the little yellow helpers, Minionese has at certain times had more online translators available than any other fictional language. This could be because it often feels like the listener can almost make out what the Minions are saying.

That’s understandable – because Minionese nearly is too! Though it is a discrete language with its own dictionary and words, it does borrow a lot from real-world languages (partly to help younger viewers understand what’s being said). These languages include:

  • English
  • Spanish (look out for “Para tú” meaning “for you”)
  • Italian (notably “gelato” meaning “ice cream”)
  • Korean
  • Filipino
  • Chinese

The language of the Minions was both created and voiced by Despicable Me directors Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud.

4) Newspeak (1984)

Writer George Orwell created Newspeak for his novel 1984 without knowing that one day it would be used in the film adaptation actually released in 1984.

To represent Orwell’s totalitarian future, Newspeak is a variant of English that has some fairly specific rules, such as:

  • No freedom – the language doesn’t contain words for “freedom” or “free” because the concept of freedom was supposed to be literally unthinkable.
  • No antonyms – so words such as “warm” and “good” become “unwarm” and “ungood” to limit the thoughts of the subjects.
  • No equality – the word “equal” is used in Newspeak, but it only means equal on a physical level rather than social rankings, class, or economic well-being.

In 1984, anyone who tries to use “oldspeak” (standard English from before the totalitarian regime) would be sent to a “joycamp” (forced labour camp).

While it sounds simple enough as a language, Orwell explained in a BBC interview how complicated it was to create and develop so that it wasn’t too complex for a reader – and, eventually, a viewer too.

5) Elvish, Quenya (The Lord of the Rings)

How can you talk about languages in film and not reference at least one language from Middle-Earth? J. R. R. Tolkien was a philologist and knew how to construct a language. He ended up merging prehistoric languages to create a new one.

He created Elvish (Quenya, or High Elvish) as his first language for the series and didn’t stop there. He created different dialects and languages within Elvish as a whole.

Written Elvish has seven scripts, though most are only used in a certain area or city. Gondolinic Runes are only used in the city of Gondolin and Sarati is only used by the Second Clan. Many of Tolkien’s languages have ties with Latin, Spanish, French, German, and English.

6) Huttese (Star Wars)

Star Wars is another franchise that has developed a reputation for creating an obscene number of languages. A favourite among fans is Huttese, spoken by the Hutts of Evocar.

While it has no ties to any living real-world languages, it does have similarities with long-dead languages such as Mayan and Nahuatl (spoken by the Aztecs in Mexico). It was created by Ben Burtt and Larry Ward and is used in four of the six original and prequel films.

The most famous user of Huttese is Jabba the Hutt, though a young Anakin Skywalker uses it to communicate with people on Tatooine who don’t use English in A Phantom Menace.

The language was first seen in Star Wars – later renamed Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (Han shot first!) – and astounded audiences in 1977 as it still sometimes does to this day. It is rarely used in other media but was referenced in the final series of How I Met Your Mother.

7) Parseltongue (Harry Potter)

We’ve written recently about how the Harry Potter series contains many fascinating languages, but none are more interesting than Parseltongue.

Parseltongue can only be used by certain gifted witches or wizards in order to communicate with snakes and each other. It was first seen in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002).

Speakers of the language are referred to as Parselmouths and, in the books and films, it is commonly a sign of Dark Magic and evil. The final film in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (2011), explains why Harry – the hero – has the ability.

Although Parseltongue was referenced in the book series, it was written in Standard English to reflect the fact that the character knew what was being said.

8) Nadsat (A Clockwork Orange)

Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of Anthony Burgess’s novel A Clockwork Orange features the Nadsat language.

Nadsat is a Russian-influenced English language, the name being derived from the Russian prefix “teen”. It contains some Russian words and phrases, some English slang such as “sod off”, and there are some child-like elements to it including “appy polly loggy”, which means “apology”.

Burgess himself created it when writing the novel, as he was a linguist as well as a novelist.

9) Atlantean (Atlantis: The Lost Empire)

Disney has provided the movie-going world with some memorable languages, but by far the most popular was Atlantean from the film Atlantis: The Lost Empire.

This was based on the language of the ancient Babylonians and is mixed with Biblical Hebrew, Latin, Greek, and Chinese. Disney tasked the creation of the language to Marc Okrand – the guy who helped create Klingon – who took five years to develop the language.

According to Disney mythology, Atlantean was only written down phonetically when the film was created. It wasn’t until the movie’s release in 2001 that it was written how it should be using the Atlantean alphabet.

10) Mondoshawan, the Diving Language (The Fifth Element)

The 1997 film The Fifth Element starring Bruce Willis featured the Mondoshawan language, sometimes called the Divine Language. It was created by director Luc Besson and Willis’ co-star Milla Jovovich, who had to speak the language on screen.

Mondoshawan only contained 400 words but has a total of 78 letters and only its native speakers – called shape shifters – can speak it. This is because they can change their vocal cords instantly to create the correct sounds.

Besson and Jovovich wrote letters to each other and spoke to one another in the Divine Language so that they could practice using it leading up to the filming of the movie.

The language of film

The sound of a constructed language in a film – even if it doesn’t have a large enough lexicon to be used in the real world or true rules of grammar – can transport us to the world a movie wants us to inhabit.

Whether that world is a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away or a vision of our own future a little closer to home, languages in films play a vital role in imagination and setting the scene for the story and characters on the screen.

Looking to localise film or video content for an audience in our own world?

Let’s talk. Kwintessential already works with The BBC World Service, Fremantle Media, and many other distributors large and small to create powerful, compelling localisations.

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